It looks like a new front in the “war on women” has opened up, and it involves America’s nuns.
A friend of mine who belongs to a women-led Catholic community alerted me to this development, which she finds appalling and surprising.
The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents a majority of U.S. nuns, has been under investigation by the Vatican for three years.
That investigation has ended, and the LCWR has been harshly criticized by the Vatican for promoting what the Holy See called “certain radical feminist themes.”
The Vatican notes that the nuns have been vocal on social justice, but they haven’t spoken out enough in opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion.
The report cites three areas of concern: the content of speakers’ addresses at LCWR assemblies; “corporate dissent” in the congregation over the church’s sexual teaching; and the “prevalence” of radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.
“The Vatican has ordered [the LCWR] to reform,” writes the National Catholic Reporter, “and to place itself under the authority of an archbishop.”
The LCWR is “stunned” by the decision, but wants to avoid rash statements or reactions. You can sign a petition to support the sisters here.
The options facing the LCWR are “stark.” They can either comply with the order, or face ouster as a Vatican-approved representative of nuns.
Basically, at the risk of putting this in overly-secular terms, the LCWR would lose its “franchise” as a legitimate group if they resist the order.
In the same NCR article, Jesuit Fr. Ladislas Orsy comments: “It’s not very complicated. The Vatican is taking control.” And the nuns have absolutely no recourse for appeal—“none whatsoever.” Another canon lawyer points out that since the evidence hasn’t been published, it would be folly even to attempt an appeal.
Clyde Wilcox, a professor at Georgetown University, says in a Los Angeles Times article, “I think it’s a [public relations] problem for the church to send a man to tell a group of women who have dedicated their lives to this kind of work to tell them to get in line.”
Indeed. To the non-Catholic and to the Catholic women I spoke to, it’s a public relations problem and more than that.
When contextualized within U.S. politics, the Vatican order has the effect, even if not the intention, of instructing the sisters to get busy in the figurative culture war by re-focusing on the most polarizing social issues—gays, same-sex marriage, and abortion.
It’s not exactly a Man Bites Dog story to re-discover that the Catholic Church is a patriarchal hierarchy. Even so, the timing of this decision is inauspicious.
For the last several months consciousness has grown about the ways that gains for women since the early 1970s are being challenged by social conservatives and the new GOP.
The Vatican’s decision brings women under more active control of male leadership to obediently toe the line on the most morally polarizing and, to many, controversial aspects of the Church’s doctrine.
It reinforces the feeling that we’re living in a time of neo-paternalism, when women who are gaining power in so many areas are also fighting to hold on to it in others.
The Church has strong doctrine about abortion and homosexuality, but presumably they believe just as strongly in their other teachings—the ones that the LCWR was criticized for spending its time on.
Granted, the laity might cherry-pick Catholicism a bit, or approach it a la carte, to reconcile their religion with pragmatic realities or their own ambivalent convictions. They might use birth control, but oppose abortion, and so on.
However, I don’t think the Vatican places its teachings on some scale ranging from, “We Really Mean It” to “Don’t Actually Bother About This One.” Wouldn’t teachings on the poor, or mercy, that the LCWR emphasized at the expense of anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage be as worthy of attention?
Those social issues also have the collateral benefit of bringing consciences together across spiritual divides, because they focus on community needs. The LA Times notes that LCWR communities provides key social services in under-served areas. A spokeswoman for Network, a "social justice lobby formed by nuns," comments that they're "deeply grieved for the tens of thousands of sisters who dedicate themselves to social justice work."
Now, a religious conference of women who might have been instruments of bridge-building are directed to become more pliant instruments for bridge-burning. We don’t need more of this.